Bishkek is hemmed in by mountains to the south and the endless, rolling Kazakh steppe to the north. There are few roads out of town, and endless mountains to explore.
Since the road is better and it’s a little more than half-an-hour from our house, we usually go hiking/picnicking at Ala Archa, the famed [and crowded] national park. But trails around Bishkek abound, hidden down bumpy paths behind the urban sprawl. We just don’t want to risk our tires. So for this Saturday I finally booked our first trip with Trekking Union Kyrgyzstan. As far as I understand it, TUK is basically a non-profit community organization run by board members who seek to provide more opportunities to locals and visitors alike to explore and appreciate natural Kyrgyzstan. The union offers day hikes (calendar here), extended (3-5 day) camping and hiking excursions, equipment rentals, and hiking maps for sale. I first arrived in Bishkek almost two years back and, while I’ve heard of TUK perhaps a dozen times, I’d never actually been on one of their trips. Perhaps in part because they leave at 8am. So at 7:30 on Saturday we got out the door and drove to their office and meeting point at Turusbevoka and Kievskaya. And waited. For the (quite comfortable and clean) minivan did not leave until 8:20. Soon we were out of town and rolling through the pretty Kyrgyz countryside.
To my surprise, almost everyone on the trip was local. Apart from us, there was a German studying Russian at the London School and two middle-aged French women who came equipped with alpine hiking sticks and giant brimmed hats. Then there were a few Kyrgyz couples, a dad with two college-aged kids, and a gaggle of university-aged girls all in white shorts and pink baseball caps, curiously unprepared for the hike in their sandals and cloth keds. Our guide was Andre, a wiry Russian member of the Trekking Union who helped everyone across slippery raging rapids bridges and let several segments of our group get lost several times (though it is pretty hard to stay lost for long in an enclosed gorge).
Our journey was to Issyk Ata, a soviet-era sanatorium located at the end of the road and the base of a long mountain gorge where herdsmen still go to let out their flocks in summer. Issyk Ata itself was a depressing, dumpy one-street affair – a still-functioning ‘medical center’ surrounded by broken gates, a few paint-peeling guesthouses, a locked-up canteen, dried up fountains with weeds growing in the sidewalk cracks, and three wind-blasted soviet apartment blocks with ragged laundry out to dry. I suppose it must have looked lovely about thirty years’ past. We first hiked up a short stone stairs to one of the area’s older attractions – a 13th century Buddha carved in stone, now painted over in gold and, curiously, shaded by a tree covered in Muslim folk prayer clothes (in folk practice, one makes a wish/prayer and ties a piece of cloth on a sacred tree – like this tree here). On the other side was a carved relief of Lenin.
From 10-5 we spent, well…hiking. First up one side of the gorge, with a diversion to a waterfall, then down the other side of the gorge, after an hour rest and crossing a rather treacherous-looking log bridge. We returned to the vans more than a bit sunburned, tired, and full of fresh air.
Overall it was a really good experience – for 400 som each (less for members of TUK) we escaped from the city on the hottest day of the year, didn’t have to wreck our car over ruts, and explored a new place with a decent group of new people and an ever-enthusiastic volunteer guide.
Just a few things of note:
- Do not buy the cheaper Russian brand sunscreen in the orange tubes at Harodnie. It is useless. I got less burned last time we went out and all I could find at home was SPF 10 suntan oil. 4 hour SPF 40 my red-burned shoulders. Shell out the 800 som and go for Nivea. Or let me know a better place to find functioning sunblock in Bishkek.
- Bring plenty of water. We each went through about 2 litres.
- Bring your own food. I had thought lunch was provided; it was not, but [thankfully] I ended up being not that hungry anyway.
- This isn’t a professionally-guided all-pampering trip. I think the older French women were expecting that, and they were a bit frustrated at first. The trails aren’t all great. There will be slope-scrambling, creek-crossing, bush-whaking and mud in your shoes.